Let’s Change the Conversation Frame: Muslim Exchange Students Worried About Coming to the U.S.

In recent weeks, the political conversation in the U.S. has focused on fears of Muslim immigration — from Syria in particular, but some political candidates have cast a pretty wide “ban Muslims” net. This troubles us on a personal level; it also bothers us on a professional level, in connection with the work we do with international high school students and cultural exchange.

This week we received an email from an exchange student scheduled to come to the U.S. in January. “Emily” (not her real name) is coming through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES) program. The YES program is funded by the U.S. Dept. of State; the program’s goal is to broaden cultural understanding by providing scholarships for students from countries with significant Muslim populations to come to the U.S. to attend high school for up to one year, live with a host family, and learn more about the American culture.

“Emily” expressed excitement about coming to the U.S., and looks forward to the American experience of living with a host family. At the same time, she is anxious, as many exchange students are prior to arrival. She is worried about what to do if she is “not on the same page” as her host mom on some things, and wonders what to do if her English isn’t as good as it should be.

But there’s an anxiety that sets her apart. As a girl wearing a headscarf, she is almost terrified. She worries she’ll be easy to identify as a Muslim.

I am a Muslim, and I am happy being me. But the misconception of Islam [being associated] with terrorism and violence seems terrifying for me. I have never been in a situation where people start looking at me with strange looks, children running away when seeing a girl with headscarf, being insulted with painful words.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, in November, and in San Bernardino, California, two weeks ago, violence and threats of violence against Muslims in this country (or people perceived to be Muslim) have increased. Mosques have been vandalized, and a leading Presidential candidate has proposed that all Muslims be excluded from entering the United States.

Fear is leading to innocent people being harmed or being threatened for no reason other than their faith. Fear leads to otherwise good people acting wrongly – or to not taking any action, which can be just as wrong.

I can relate. We have raised two sons, now 21 and 23 years old. They are African-American, we are not. As young children they encountered the N-word. Store clerks ignored us. Other children said they would never amount to anything due to the color of their skin. As a family, we’ve taken special precautions when traveling in some parts of the U.S. We met with school officials when our children were young to address disciplinary actions that seemed disproportionate or directed only at them and not at white students. We’ve urged our sons to exercise extreme restraint in any dealings with law enforcement.

MCT and boys 11-2011

© 2011 Joseph Grimes Photography

We’ve raised great young men. Yet we continue to worry every single day about what situation might come up in which “being black” could suddenly become a very bad thing. So receiving this letter from “Emily” hit home. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a teenager who happens to be Muslim, who is seeing all this in the news just four weeks before she is scheduled to arrive in the U.S..

What steps can we as exchange program representatives suggest to “Emily”? Based on our experience with our own sons, and with dozens of exchange students of all nationalities and races, here is what we advised Emily to do:

1. Don’t assume that what you hear and see in the media is representative of all Americans. It’s not.

2. When you arrive in the U.S., be totally upfront with your host family and your exchange program coordinator about your concerns and fears. Engage them in dialogue and see what insights and suggestions they have.

3. Go out of your way to talk to your teachers at school, as well as to the school counselor, vice principal, and principal. Develop personal relationships as quickly as possible, and be upfront with them about your concerns. They can help.

4. As we recommend with all exchange students, try to make friends quickly at school. American teenagers in many parts of the U.S. may not know much about the rest of the world. You have a huge opportunity to help those American teenagers learn about other countries and other religions. Take advantage of that opportunity.

5. You may wish to reach out to a local Muslim group. Here in Portland, for example, we have in the past reached out to the Muslim Educational Trust, hoping to have them be available as a resource for our Muslim students. Such groups, or your local mosque if there is one in your host community, can give you insights and suggestions. Talk to your host family about reaching out to these resources so they don’t feel you’re going behind their backs. They should encourage your efforts.

6. If you feel anything inappropriate is taking place in your host family, your school, or your community due to your faith, immediately reach out to your exchange program coordinator for advice and support. Don’t hold it inside or share it only with your parents back home. It is your coordinator’s role to represent your interests in situations like this. If you don’t get the support you need from your exchange program coordinator, talk to your school counselor or someone else you trust. You can always call the exchange program’s national office directly or even the U.S. Department of State, if you feel that you are not getting the help that you need.

We truly hope “Emily” has a great exchange experience here in the U.S. As we have written in other blog posts, we think that the kind of cultural exchange in which Emily is participating is important. Exchanges involving truly different cultures and backgrounds – such as Muslim students like “Emily” – are perhaps even more important than exchanges involving teens from Europe, which arguably has more in common with the U.S. (and thus is more familiar). Programs such as the Kennedy-Lugar YES program are at the cutting edge of what inter-cultural exchange needs to be in the United States as we move into the 21st century.

  • Diane Homan says:

    I ran across this article on Facebook and found it really interesting.
    My best friend in 9th grade was a Muslim girl. That was the year of 9/11, and I saw some pretty awful things happen to her (insults, rock throwing) because of her religion. On the other hand, the reason I never stepped into the dark side of anti-Muslim sentiment was because of my friend.
    I guess if I could tell “Emily” one thing, it would be that even though these things are difficult -awful at times, and very unfair- there are people like me who need to meet people like her for things to change. I’m glad she has the courage to try.

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